MFAC faculty Sherri L. Smith talks about her young adult historical fiction novel, The Blossom and the Firefly (February 18, 2020).
From the award-winning author of Flygirl comes this powerful WWII romance between two Japanese teens caught in the cogs of an unwinnable war, perfect for fans of Salt to the Sea, Lovely War, and Code Name Verity.
Japan 1945. Taro is a talented violinist and a kamikaze pilot in the days before his first and only mission. He believes he is ready to die for his country . . . until he meets Hana. Hana hasn’t been the same since the day she was buried alive in a collapsed trench during a bomb raid. She wonders if it would have been better to have died that day . . . until she meets Taro.
A song will bring them together. The war will tear them apart. Is it possible to live an entire lifetime in eight short days?
What inspired The Blossom and the Firefly?
I was doing research on a nonfiction book about the Tuskegee Airmen when I came across a photo of a group of Japanese school girls in their little sailor style uniforms, lining a runway and waving to a departing fighter plane. The article was about the Chiran Peace Museum, dedicated to the memory of the kamikaze pilots that flew their final missions from the local airbase in Chiran, Japan. The girls were Nadeshiko Tai, a unit of junior high school girls whose wartime job was to care for the pilots and, on their final departure, to wave goodbye. I was hooked from that point on.
What were the challenges (literary, psychological, logistical, etc.) in bringing this book to life?
The biggest challenge in writing this book was getting the culture right. I had studied Japanese literature in translation in college, and I had visited Japan as a child. I’ve also written World War II aviation. But it was important to pay appropriate honor to the Japanese culture. That meant a lot of research. I took some Japanese lessons. I visited Chiran with a translator, and we spoke to just about everyone we could who was of an age to have lived in the town during the war. I spoke with the curator of the museum, and the descendants of some of the people mentions in the book. I read collections of dairies written by Japanese citizens during the war. We had two beta readers, a friend who is half-Japanese and also writes WWII Japan, as well as a native Japanese speaker who ensured the use of language was correct. The best compliment I’ve ever received is from my Japanese translator, who upon reading the book thanked me for being meticulous and accurate. She plans on using it the book as a resource for her tourism trade!
If you could be friends with only one of your characters, who would you choose and why?
What an interesting question! If I could be friends with someone in The Blossom and the Firefly, I think it would be Hana’s friend, Mariko. She has such a sweet, funny spirit. She could lift even the darkest mood just by being herself.
How has your writing process changed now that you have been published?
This is my ninth book, and I can say that every single one has been different in one way or another. Usually it’s the point of entry that changes. I made multiple attempts before I found the right voice for Hana. Taro’s seemed to come more easily once I knew how she sounded. What was unique for me here was really due to the research required. I could only afford one trip to Japan, so I actually wrote a draft of the book before I went, so I could see what was missing. I filled in a lot of visceral detail on the trip, as well as history, but the first draft was based on a lot of book research so I wouldn’t waste a minute in Japan.
What did you edit out of this book?
There is a scene during the duet that I took out because it was a non-sequitur, written from the point of view of a monk awakened by the music. I really loved the perspective he gave in his solitary thoughts, but my editor though I should either show more points of view, or stick to just Hana and Taro. Ultimately, the latter was the better choice.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
Make excuses for not writing. And read.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Just do it, and stick to it. You will make all kinds of mistakes but that’s part of the process. It’s necessary in order to build the muscles needed to write well. And do your research, be respectful of your subjects, and try to honor them with your work.
What is next for you? What are you working on now?
Up next I have a comic book coming out this summer (if distributors are back in gear by then). It’s Disney Villains: Ursula and the Seven Seas (Dark Horse/Disney), and takes a different look at Ursula long before the events of The Little Mermaid. And I’m working on my next YA novel, which is too embryonic to talk about. I’ve also just finished copy edits on another nonfiction for younger readers, What is the Civil Rights Movement?(Penguin/Who HQ).
What else would you like to add?
I’d like to tell everyone at home right now that their work is important. Social distancing can’t stop a story from being shared. Writers can be companions to even the loneliest people. So take heart and take care of yourselves. Readers need you to keep going.
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